My son was never ‘into’ history at school. He learned what he was obliged to learn and promptly forgot most of it. Add to that the effects of the black holes in memory caused by brain injury, and many of the things he did learn now have to be learned anew. He remembers only outlines and the details need to be filled in. It is an interesting process, for where a child will accept such facts as books and teachers recount, the adult mind has a different perspective and questions every detail. This often leads us into deep discussion and down convoluted paths, but this time, the subject was so harrowing that we were kept on track.
My son asked me about the Holocaust. It had been touched upon at school, but he had been taught nothing about it there that had struck the emotional chord that made it stick in his memory. He had been listening to an audiobook written by a Jewish survivor of the camps and could not come to terms with the horror and inhumanity of what he was hearing. He wanted to know what had happened. I directed him to the archive footage of the concentration camps that is now available and he was horrified beyond words. He asked the same question most of us ask. How could it happen? Not from an ideological or political viewpoint… for the details of history are easily researched… but from a human perspective.
We went on to discuss other periods throughout history, where nations of apparent moral rectitude have committed atrocities on a scale that beggars belief. And always with the moral justification of acting in the best interests of their country. From British atrocities during the Mau Mau Uprising, to the French Reign of Terror, from Guantanamo Bay to the Shoah, few nations, including my own, can in all honesty hold up their hands and show them to be free of blood shed by injustice and prejudice.
How can any human being perpetrate such horrors against another?
The only answer I could give him was that I have no answer. I can theorise all I like, but I will never, I hope, feel the kind of prejudice that sows the seeds of such madness. Yet, I cannot know that for certain. Propaganda is insidious. It is controlled by those who are able to drip-feed the population enough poison over time to create a toxic group mind that can become capable of things they would never have believed possible of themselves as individuals. And, properly indoctrinated, they will believe they are acting in the best interests of their country, group or system.
Many of the perceived differences that create hatred and prejudice are simply the result of the lottery of birth that determines the colour of our skin, the country we call home or the faith in which we are raised. Prejudice takes many forms and can start so early we are not even aware of it. Born in Yorkshire, I learned early that ‘all southerners’ think we are stupid, boorish and backward. I learned later that this was completely untrue… and my own sons are now de facto southerners. It is a small thing, but it introduced the seed of an idea… that prejudice becomes reciprocal and both propagates and perpetuates itself.
There is an old prophecy of a time when national bloodlines and identities will have mingled so much that we are all of a single colour. That seems possible at some future date with our current global movement, though I think we would find our society less vibrant without its mix of cultures. Were we all of one race, would there still be anything against which we could raise hatred? I would like to think not, but I fear that there will always be those who see ‘divide and rule’ as their path to power and who will find any weakness to exploit, even if it includes marginalising and dehumanising some sector of the population. But the future is ours to write. We are each responsible for how we choose to live.
When all is said and done, most human beings want only to live in peace with their neighbours. We are just ordinary folk who recognise that other ordinary folk may be different from ourselves in some way, but that we are all just human beings trying to do our best for our families. We recognise that our communities can only be enriched by the wider horizons of a diverse society.